May 28, 2015

The best thirty minutes on television

"HOW, LIEUTENANT, CAN YOU BE SURE WHICH IS THE ACTUAL MURDER WEAPON?"
Now I know what you're thinking: how can I possibly have anything more to say about Perry Mason other than what I've already said?  And it's true; in addition to my essay on Mason as one of my Top 10 shows of all time, I've frequently alluded to the show in one way or another.  So what?  We all have our quirks, our pleasures, the shows we keep coming back to again and again.  Still, what else can I say?  Well, let's talk about the most entertaining thirty minutes of television anywhere, surely the most entertaining thirty minutes to be found in a sixty minute show.

Someone once wrote that the courtroom was the perfect theater, as it provided a stage for the entire range of human emotion, and this is certainly true of Perry Mason.  About half of each episode, more or less, is spent in the courtroom, and I sometimes think you could skip the entire first thirty minutes or so and still be enthralled by the drama of Perry once again taking on Hamilton Burger (or whichever poor soul winds up on the opposite side of the table)*.  After all, we already know that the defendant is innocent, we already know the killer is somewhere in the courtroom, and if we sit through enough testimony we're going to figure out the premise and get a chance to guess who the guilty party is.  We're guaranteed that nine times out of ten Perry is going to get someone on the stand and, under a withering battery of questions starting with, "Isn't it true...", that person is going to crumble, blurting out either "I didn't mean to do it!" or "I killed him, and I'm glad I killed him - he deserved to die!"  After the final commercial break, we'll see Perry, Della and Paul sitting around a table in a restaurant, or sitting around a desk in Perry's office, or sitting around a desk in Hamilton Burger's office, whereupon Perry will modestly explain how he'd uncovered the guilty party in the first place.  It's so predictable - and oh, so entertaining.

*I'm not suggesting, by the way, that you skip the first half hour of the show.  You'll miss a lot of great lines that way, such as Perry explaining to Paul why they can't be arrested for burglary when they''re breaking into a suspect's office after hours: first, they didn't break anything to get in, and second, you have to take something for it to be burglary, and Perry only wants to get a look at what's in those files.  Stick to sleuthing, Paul, and leave the law to Perry.

As I've said before, we don't really know much about Perry, Della and Paul.  We know that Perry lives alone, that he lives in an apartment, and that even when he's home he reads his law books.  We suspect that he and Della have a closer relationship than most employers and employees, but we never see them out socially unless they're taking a break from working on a case.  We figure Della doesn't have any other man in her life; who'd ever put up with the kind of hours she keeps at the office?  We know Paul has an eye for the trim ankle, from which we can infer he's not married either, and we know Perry's his biggest client, but beyond that?  Nothing.  For that matter, we don't know much about Hamilton Burger, either.  Is he married?  And if so, how does his wife cope with him losing every single case he tries against Mason?

We don't know these things, and we don't have to.  What we do know is that Perry is the best lawyer around, one who will use any legal tactic to get benefit his client, no matter how much he has to stretch the envelope.  We know that Della's devoted to Perry, and that she'll see he gets everything he needs.  And we know that Paul, despite whatever doubts he might have about the innocence of Perry's client, will do whatever Perry asks him to do.  It doesn't take long to establish something like that; in fact, considering the popularity of Erle Stanley Gardner's Mason books, it's likely many in the audience already knew this before the series even started.

In our serialized era of television, shows tend to get so wrapped up in the private lives of the lead characters, their backstories and their continuing dramas and their evolutionary processes, that they forget Shakespeare's maxim: the play's the thing.  And once the play begins, once the participants have entered the squared circle of the courtroom, that's when things start cooking, when the panoply of human drama plays out.  One witness after another lays out the case against the defendant, who looks desperately at Mason: "He's twisting my words," she might say, or "I never said that!" or "I know I should have told you before, but I was afraid you wouldn't take my case!"*

*Whenever his client pulls that one, you can almost see the adding machine clicking away in Perry's head, wondering how much that's going to add to the bill when all's said and done.  "Let's see, that's $10,000 for lying, $5,000 for failing to tell me about the other woman, $2,750 for Paul's expenses in traveling to Mexico to check out a false alibi. . . Looks as if Della's going to get that new fur for Christmas after all."

Things start to look bleak for Perry and his client, and you can see it in Burger's smug expression, the satisfied way he confers with Lieutenant Tragg to head off one of Mason's surprise moves.  At last, I'm going to beat him!  And then, with no warning, the tide begins to turn.  Maybe Paul's rushed in a last-minute piece of advice, or Perry's noticed something that a previous witness said; whatever, the lightbulb goes on over Perry's head, and suddenly he launches two, three, four questions at the witness, who begins to stammer and sweat.  Burger, seeing that certain victory starting to slip away, desperately launches objection after objection, most of which are shot down by the judge who seems as curious as we are to find out what Mason's up to.  (Occasionally, the judge takes a little dig at Burger while he's overruling his objection, which makes it even better.)

In one recent episode, the breakdown in courtroom decorum was so egregious that the judge told Perry he'd look favorably on a motion for a mistrial.  From off-screen comes Burger's anguished shout: "Mistrial??!!"  No matter how great it is seeing Burger's face contort in pain, nothing compares to that off-screen shriek.  Perhaps, as is the case with Fibber McGee's closet, imagination is better that seeing.  In any event, Perry smoothly thanks the judge but says he's willing to continue his questioning, because he believes a couple more questions could "clear everything up."  Of course, he's right.  Sometimes it's the person you thought it would be, sometimes it's a particularly smarmy suspect who finally gets her comeuppance, but in the end it's the sheer pleasure of watching Perry at work: puncturing an executive's pomposity, taking a gossipy crone to task, turning a wiley witness into a quivering bowl of Jell-O.  From that first "Isn't it true" you know where things are going.  And you love it.  "Here he goes!" you think, and you're right.

If I make this sound too simplistic, I don't mean to, because what Perry Mason does isn't simple at all.  To keep a formulaic program like this going for nine successful years, continuing to entertain audiences for week after week, takes a good staff of writers to come up with scripts, and an exceptional cast to execute them.  Raymond Burr so inhabited the role of Mason that he became a favorite speaker at law conventions and meetings of bar associations.  He infuses his character with an indefatigable desire for justice, and an unwavering belief in his client; even if he thinks that client has lied or withheld information, he's going to make damn sure that Burger, et al don't get a whiff of that doubt.  I've referred in the past to Mason as a single-combat warrior, a solitary figure standing in front of the bench, prepared to engage in a battle to the death in behalf of an innocent person.  In Mason's hands, or rather, in Raymond Burr's hands, the law becomes the most noble of professions, Mason the most distinguished of its practitioners.

It's quite a legacy to leave, not only the entertainment value of the series but the portrayal of the man in it, for Perry Mason is one of the most enjoyable programs on television in any era, and Perry Mason is one of the most heroic characters the medium has produced.  Forget the lack of development, the characters frozen in time year after year, unchanging from season to season.  Ignore the flaws and imperfections which never seem to manifest themselves in our heroes.  Concentrate instead on that courtroom scene, the thirty minutes that close out the episode, the most entertaining half hour on television.

This post is part of the the 2015 Summer of Me-TV Classic Television Blogathon. Click here to view the lineup of all the great posts in this blogathon. 

6 comments:

  1. Great post on a great show. Perry was always cool under the gun. And he tried, somewhat, to not make Hamilton feel too bad. :)

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  2. PERRY MASON is one of the greatest TV programs of all time! It's amazing that, as you wrote, it employed such a rigid formula and still made it feel fresh year after year. The cast was terrific; I love your line about when "the the lightbulb goes on over in Perry's head," because I can visualize Raymond Burr's facial expression with no problem. However, it's true that the show had strong writers. For me, that was reinforced by the later TV movies, which--despite the presence of Perry and Della--just weren't as good. (Of course, I missed Paul, too). Wonderful post for the blogathon! (By the way, some of my favorite episodes took Perry to different surroundings, such as a cabin by the lake...where someone was still murdered.....)

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  3. The quintessential TV doctor? Could be anyone from Kildare to Marcus Welby to McDreamy. The quintessential TV lawyer? There is still only one. I never get tired of watching Perry Mason dismantle another of Burger's 'airtight' cases. Great post!

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  4. I really love how you salute the maxim that I've always believed in for TV series -- the play's the thing! I love a good plot and you are so right that sometimes NOTHING happens in shows anymore! Not so with great classic TV most of the time! I confess that I've not watched as many episodes of "Perry Mason" as I should have -- I need to remedy that! -- but I hope that you've seen the episode of "The Jack Benny Show" with Raymond Burr as guest star. Completely hilarious!! You have now made me want to explore "Perry Mason" -- that means this was a GREAT blog post!

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  5. Interesting ...

    So many of you are complimenting Perry Mason on its writing -

    - but you aren't mentioning the writers by name.

    Permit me to take up the slack.
    I'll concentrate on the most frequent contributors, as well as some other notable ones:

    -Samuel Newman: most frequent PM writer, with 36 credited scripts out of 271 over nine years.
    That might not seem like much, until you remember that PM was putting out 30 or more episodes per season.

    - Jonathan Latimer: a popular mystery novelist from the '30s on, he went to Hollywood and wrote movies like The Big Clock and The Night Has A Thousand Eyes, among others.
    Moving to TV, Latimer's credits include 30 Masons, among many others; his final TV credit was a Columbo from 1972.

    - Jackson Gillis: a TV mainstay from the '50s (Superman) through to the '80s (Murder, She Wrote) - and many, many more in between.
    For Mason, Gillis wrote 30 scripts himself, and was associate producer/script editor for several seasons in mid-run.

    - Robert C. Dennis, whose multitudinous Mason credits number 22 - in a career that also included stops at The Outer Limits and Batman (where he co-created King Tut).

    - Seeleg Lester, with 20 scripts of his own, plus his own stints as script editor/ associate producer.

    - Gene Wang, PM's first producer, 10 scripts; a former attorney whose other TV credits include Philip Marlowe and Trials Of O'Brien.

    - Some other Mason writers included William Bast (James Dean's closest friend and biographer), Henry Farrell (Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?), Robb White (William Castle's gimmick pictures, like House On Haunted Hill and The Tingler), and many more.

    Side note:

    One of my favorite movies of recent times was My Cousin Vinny, featuring Joe Pesci and (Oscar-winner) Marisa Tomei.
    The courtroom scenes had more than a little Mason influence in them, with a comic turn.
    Vinny's screenwriter was Dale Launer -
    - whose father was S. John Launer, a character actor who was the most frequently seen judge on Perry Mason - 69 episodes over nine seasons (I think; I'll have to look it up and make sure).
    Coincidence?
    You be the judge (so to speak).

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  6. Wonderful post! For some reason, for many years, I never watched Perry Mason. I knew of it and almost watched it on numerous occasions. Then, I read about "The Case of the Bogus Books." The synopsis I saw mentioned that a rare book was sold for a very low price precipitating trouble. The book is "Tristram Shandy," which is my favorite book of all time. (I just finished re-reading it for the 10th (?) time.) One doesn't encounter Tristram much in more modern pop culture. So, I watched a few episodes of Perry... and loved it! Of Course.

    Now, I'm debating whether or not to go after the DVDs.... Possibly.

    Thanks for this! Have an excellent day.

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